Practical Campbell Essay: Original Campbell

Date of Publication: July 31, 2006

Author: Stephen Gerringer

In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer surfs through several subjects original to Joseph Campbell, and invites readers’ comments on what they find unique in Campbell’s work

I’ve been on the road most of the past six weeks, starting with the Mythic Journeys Conference and Performance Arts Festival in Atlanta in early June, so this month’s Practical Campbell will be an abbreviated version of the usual lumbering essay—no doubt a relief to many, given my inclination towards excessive verbosity.

Mercury remains in retrograde as I write, almost guaranteeing thoughts a-tangle (if you believe that sort of thing), so I thought to sidestep the cosmic trickster by switching tactics; instead of delving deep into just one subject, we’ll sample a potpourri of topics, skimming the surface of concepts whose only common characteristic is that they originated with Joseph Campbell.

This cluster-shot approach is triggered by a contemporary criticism that Campbell, though skilled at collecting and communicating the thoughts of others, had no original ideas of his own. Campbell’s work is thus characterized as bringing together material already in existence and making it available to the broader public (e.g., Adolf Bastian’s classification of elementary and ethnic ideas, or Jung’s conceptualization of the collective unconscious).

Joseph Campbell’s words do indeed appeal to a popular audience, turning them on to what turned him on. Many are the individuals who’ll admit they first encountered Joyce, Mann, Spengler, Nietzsche, Jung, and others in the pages of Campbell’s books. Nor does Joe fail to acknowledge the influence of those who have gone before—but this need not mean his work is derivative.

On the other hand, Campbell toiled in the field of mythology; his source material has indeed been in existence for millennia (e.g., the motif of the virgin birth, a pattern in a multitude of myths from different cultures that the ancients recognized long before the Christian nativity – a recognition so entrenched that early Christian fathers warned of counterfeit myths devised by the devil to duplicate the Savior’s feats before the fact—so Campbell’s identification of this recurring motif is hardly unique).

At the same time, I can’t think of many people, even Einstein and Picasso and Joyce, whose work doesn’t “bring together material already in existence.” Originality lies in the creative way in which one arranges this already existing material in a novel expression that changes the way others view what’s been in front of them all along.

As I wandered the high plains, deserts and mountains that define the American West this past month, I found myself pondering what I find original in Joseph Campbell’s work—novel formulations and key concepts he introduced into the study of mythology. Rather than a comprehensive compilation, the following list tends to reflect my own interests, and so barely scratches the surface—but some topics may provide a point of departure for those interested in exploring further on their own.

Download the full essay (PDF)

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